Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?


In recent years, China has demonstrated an intense fascination with information warfare (IW). The potential advances in Chinese IW doctrine and capabilities have direct implications for U.S. national security. The ability of China to conduct information warfare against the United States in peacetime, confrontation, or conflict could pose severe challenges to defense planners. Yet, American understanding of China’s approaches to IW within the academic and defense communities remain shallow. This lack of understanding, both stemming from the extreme secrecy surrounding China’s military programs in general and the nascent stage of development in IW in particular, could invite ugly strategic and operational surprises for the United States.

As an initial step to clarify the future direction of Chinese IW and to identify new areas for further research, this monograph explores Chinese perspectives of information warfare through a sampling of the burgeoning open literature circulating in China. The monograph provides a preliminary assessment of these Chinese writings and analysis. It demonstrates some linkages and parallels to America’s current debates on IW, the Soviet-U.S. competition, Clausewitz’s classic dictums, and Chinese strategic culture. The monograph concludes with implications of future developments in Chinese IW for American policy.




Dazzled by Information Warfare.

In the past decade, China’s military modernization and growing interest in the revolution in military affairs (RMA) have increasingly attracted international attention. Like many other military powers, China has exploited the unprecedented general peace in the international security environment to reexamine and experiment with its own defense capabilities and doctrine. In particular, the concept of information warfare (IW) has emerged as a subject of great interest in Chinese military discourse. The intense discussions and debates within China’s defense community suggest that Beijing may be harnessing the political will to devote substantial resources to developing IW doctrines and capabilities. China’s potential ability to leverage the information revolution accompanied by its gradual rise as a major military power have led many observers to speculate whether China might succeed in becoming one of the global leaders in IW.

China’s appreciation for the centrality of information as a tool of statecraft and military power has significant implications. Given the tremendous advances in information technologies both in terms of the rate of innovation and quality of improvements, China is well positioned to exploit this revolution. Just as China has surprised skeptical observers with its rapid developments in nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and space programs, the Chinese may similarly come to the forefront in IW. More importantly, China’s focus on IW presents a potentially daunting challenge for American defense planners. In two cyber-attack exercises in 1997 and 1999, the U.S. military found that a group of hackers “using publicly available resources was able to prevent the United States from waging war effectively.” The Pentagon premised the first drill on a military crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The result of the exercise was sobering: the series of attacks against civilian and military networks had a paralyzing effect on American command and control at the highest levels of leadership. It is therefore conceivable that IW could provide China with the capacity to hinder American military operations in the Asia-Pacific, a region of central importance to U.S. national security interests. Hence, the direction of China’s IW strategy has direct policy relevance to the United States.

In recent years, the Chinese have demonstrated  a voracious appetite for examining IW. Arguably, only the United States and Russia rival China’s analytical work in IW. The exotic concepts and capabilities of IW have seemingly captivated the imagination of Chinese futurists and military strategists alike. Indeed, a virtual cottage industry has developed around the topic in Chinese literature on military affairs. How China will translate theoretical discussions on IW into practice will be an increasingly important policy question for the United States.

The author first explores Chinese thinking on IW through a literature survey of primary sources.  Strategists have demonstrated a keen interest in understanding the theoretical concepts, requirements, and capabilities necessary to conduct IW in future conflict. The second component of the monograph assesses the existing Chinese IW literature. While Chinese thinkers have clearly begun to grapple with the opportunities and challenges of waging IW, the analytical gaps in their writings suggest that China still has a long way to go before it can embark on the quest for information supremacy (if that is, in fact, Beijing’s goal). Finally, the author speculates on how Chinese thinking on IW could impact its future application. While the evidence remains scant at present, how the Chinese might use IW to achieve their political objectives may have unsettling consequences for the United States. This monograph is not a call to arms for American defense planners. However, the potential path that China might pursue in IW and the associated risks to U.S. national interests warrant careful observation and preparation against surprise.